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Leah Hickman

Jim McAndrew with his drone (Leah Hickman)


Filming on the fly

An app developer shows how filming by drone is easier than ever

Jim McAndrew drives up in a Tesla Model 3. He parks the shiny white car on the side of the quiet street in Austin, facing orange construction barrels. Those barrels and the dust raised by heavy machinery are the only evidence of highway construction visible from his car. McAndrew has come to take aerial footage of the construction, but he’s not getting any closer: Thanks to the latest drone technology, he can do it all while sitting in his car.

McAndrew’s first exposure to drones was in 2014, when he bought himself a drone for fun. Growing up, his interests included action sports and cinematography. Later, he worked as a private pilot. As he put it, drones were “the nexus of all of those interests.”

This hobby-level interest in drones helped him recognize gaps in drone technology. Back then, little software existed for drones, and pilots could only fly them manually. Capturing good footage required rare skill with the remote control, making drone piloting an inaccessible task to average people. McAndrew had something the average person did not: a background in software and app development. So he set out to create an app that would simplify the job for drone pilots.

Five years later, McAndrew is still looking for ways to improve his already successful drone software and to make drone usage more hands- and hassle-free. His latest app is the one he’ll use to film the construction site.

Sitting in the driver’s seat of the Tesla’s immaculate interior, McAndrew pulls out a Mac laptop and an iPad. On the laptop, he opens the software for planning the drone’s flight over the highway construction. Although he’s dragging and dropping points onto a 2D map, added features in the new app allow him to preview the shots that the drone’s camera will capture while following that route. The preview resembles Google Street View, except the perspective is from the air. Using this rough footage for reference, he increases the planned speed of the drone to 20 miles per hour and adds another point onto the map. He opens the app on his iPad and locates the mission. Now it’s time to fly. 

McAndrew reaches out of the window and places the drone—a gray contraption with four retractable rotor arms—on his Texas-tinted sunroof. From the drone’s camera, a live feed of the blue Toyota Camry parked ahead appears on the iPad, which is connected to the remote control and will provide the drone with the information it needs to capture the construction site. With a single touch on the iPad, the drone rises from the sunroof, buzzing like an oversized bee. As the drone heads toward the cloud of dust, Jim holds the remote control. He’s not using it, though. “I’m not doing anything,” he says. “This is all 100 percent automatic.” 

There’s little to see through the windshield now, but the iPad on the center console shows a crisp, smooth video of the construction site—live feed from the drone. It resembles the view from an airplane window. “So now you drink your latte and let the drone make you money,” McAndrew jokes. 

But maybe it’s not quite a joke. He’s hoping that this software will make it easier and faster for drone pilots to gather useful data that will benefit industries including construction, real estate, and cinematography. The software stores each component of every mission, allowing users to reuse the same flight patterns and instructions later. Whether it’s locating equipment in a construction site for project managers, capturing the condition of a golf course green, or assessing the damage on a tower for cell phone providers, getting the necessary data won’t be such a pain.

In the meantime, though, drones face some opposition. “Like any new technology,” McAndrew says, “there’s the potential for people to be hysterical about it.” To him, concerns about privacy are the most legitimate. He acknowledges that drones, like any other technology, can be misused to take advantage of others—but he hopes social norms will prevent people from flying their drones into neighbors’ backyards or disrupting natural landscapes.

McAndrew’s neighbors used to complain when he tested drones in his backyard. Some approached him with their concerns, and McAndrew sensed that face-to-face conversations helped them realize he wasn’t spying on them. In his words, “I’m just a normal guy with a wife and three kids who lives in the suburbs, and I film a construction site every now and again.” 

A little over five minutes later, the drone returns to the Tesla. McAndrew uses his remote control for the first time to land the drone on the glass roof. And, just like that, he has filmed a whole construction site without leaving his air-conditioned car.

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Gerald Herbert/AP

(Gerald Herbert/AP)


Double jeopardy

Two threats pose serious risks to the American electric grid, but the United States could prepare 

The Trump administration recently announced U.S. intentions to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, alleging repeated violations of the treaty by Russia. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that new advanced weapons could be aimed at American targets if the United States withdraws from the treaty.

Military analysts are reassessing the threat of nuclear war, given concerns about China, North Korea, and Russia. The horrors of blast damage and radiation are well-known, but the Electromagnetic Defense Task Force of the U.S. Air Force released a detailed report last November on the threat to the electric grid. One nuclear explosion high in the atmosphere could cause an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that could disrupt or destroy America’s electrical grid and much of our electronic equipment.

The likelihood of this happening is small, but if it did, America might enter a new dark age without any of the services required by a modern industrial society. An EMP could also result from natural causes, as occurred in 1859.

That year Fred Royce was working for the American Telegraph Company. He saw brilliant auroras in the sky at his office near Washington, D.C. As Royce worked his telegraph, he received a severe electric shock. A witness saw a spark jump from his forehead to the equipment. Magnetic compasses gyrated wildly. Telegraph communications were severely disrupted.

Scientists now know the sun causes frequent disturbances on Earth, though most are brief and far less severe than what became known as the Carrington Event, named for a British astronomer. If such an event recurred in our electronic age, the results could be as catastrophic as a nuclear-caused EMP. The type of solar disturbance most likely to cause disruption on Earth is a coronal mass ejection (CME), an explosion of plasma and magnetism from the surface of the sun.

In March 1989 a geomagnetic storm caused by a CME resulted in the collapse of the Hydro-Québec power system. This event plunged Quebec into cold and darkness for nine hours, while technicians struggled to overcome the effects of the Earth’s violently fluctuating magnetic field. In 2012, space probes detected a massive CME that faced away from Earth. University of Colorado physics laboratory director Daniel Baker said in a 2013 paper, “If that CME had hit earth, the resulting geomagnetic storm would have been comparable to the Carrington Event.” Peter Riley, a physicist with Predictive Science Inc., estimated the probability of a Carrington-class storm at 12 percent in the next 10 years.

Another factor increasing geomagnetic disturbances comes from the Earth itself. Measurements from satellites of the European Space Agency show the strength of Earth’s magnetic field is steadily decreasing, perhaps as quickly as 5 percent per decade. This field protects the planet from the effects of solar storms. As it continues to weaken, it may allow solar storms to cause more damage.

Congress has been aware of these issues since at least 2000, when it established the EMP Commission. This commission provided extensive reports in 2004 and 2008 detailing the seriousness of the EMP threat to modern American society. The reports also gave practical and affordable guidance for improving the resiliency of the electric grid. Professor and EMP Commission member George Baker testified before Congress in 2015, stating that the cost of grid enhancements would be $3.30 per month per electric ratepayer.

If lawmakers, regulators, and industry leaders understand these issues, what makes progress on hardening the electric grid so elusive? Utilities say the U.S. government has responsibility in preventing a nuclear attack and should set regulatory requirements. The government has had compelling reports on the risks of the EMP threat for at least 10 years. Yet Congress fails to pass relevant bills and regulators remain largely silent.

—Stephen Patton is a technology-fluent graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course

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Secret signals

Internet-connected voice assistants prove vulnerable to hacking

Hackers always seem to find a way to exploit emerging technologies, whether by picking the digital locks on cars and hotel rooms or by cloning credit card numbers on a website. The explosion in popularity of artificially intelligent voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri presents a lucrative target for exploitation, and researchers are now discovering special vulnerabilities in voice-recognition technology.

Scientists at Ruhr University Bochum have demonstrated that hackers could hide voice commands in other audio, even something as innocuous as the sound of chirping birds, according to Fast Company. They could launch such attacks via a TV commercial or radio program, potentially allowing hackers to make purchases, steal identifying information, or even control an internet-connected security system.

The microphones in smart speakers can also detect frequencies outside the range of normal human hearing. In September, researchers at Zhejiang University in China encoded voice commands in low-frequency sounds only the voice assistant could “hear.” In what they called a “Dolphin Attack,” the researchers tricked Apple’s voice assistant, Siri, into initiating a FaceTime call and manipulating the navigation system on an Audi automobile.

“Right now, the dangers of voice-command hijacking seem mostly theoretical and isolated,” Rafael Lourenco, executive vice president at retail fraud prevention company ClearSale, wrote for tech website VentureBeat. “But the recent past has shown us that fraudsters adapt quickly to new technology.”

While technology companies work to fix vulnerabilities in their voice assistants, consumers can protect their internet-connected devices and data by following good safety practices: Lourenco recommends using strong passwords and two-factor authentication and setting up a PIN to protect voice assistant tasks that involve home security or personal, financial, and health data.

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